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Even pinched, Hillsborough needs to provide enough child care during 'latchkey' hours

It may seem like the most idyllic and innocent time of the day.

Those warm and sunny hours between the end of school and the beginning of suppertime can be so productive for our youth.

But they also can be filled with temptation.

Sheriff David Gee calls them the "latchkey" hours, and he worries about the adverse impact that may result from a county proposal to reduce after-school programs. If we don't lock in activities and mentoring, Gee says, we may be locking up a lot more kids.

"I think after-school programs are probably one of the most important things we do," Gee said. "That two or three hours, with all that peer pressure, is really when kids get themselves jammed up and get in a bad cycle.

"I hope the county does everything they can to keep them going. I think that's smart money."

Smart money is an understatement. Gee estimates that a 15-year-old who becomes a repeat offender can eventually cost taxpayers $2 million, and that doesn't even take into consideration losing that teen's productivity or the impact on victims.

County officials, however, insist the well has run dry. As Times staff writer Bill Varian reported last month, the county's property tax revenues will drop from $813 million in 2006 to an anticipated $561.5 million next year.

To deal with the shortfall, the county wants to return to providing just the basics. At parks and recreation, the plan is to get out of the after-school-care business at 42 centers across the county and provide traditional recreation classes at 12 regional centers during those latchkey hours.

Those folks also think that in many cases, the parks replicate after-school care already available at elementary schools and private nonprofits such as the Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA. Low-income families that couldn't afford the after-school care from those entities would qualify for grant-based vouchers.

It sounds like an approach that can help the county save money, but parents attending a hearing at the Brandon Recreation Center last week remained largely unconvinced. They fret about the quality of the school-based programs and insist that the parks department can find the funding through better management and stronger revenue streams.

Parks and recreation officials argue that children currently enrolled in after-school programs will be within 5 miles of the newly designated regional centers.

Five miles, however, can be daunting for children. Consider the Mango Recreation Center, which would have its after-school program shuttered. Teachers at nearby Mango Elementary have been known to walk students to the center, but that won't be possible if the county follows through with its proposal.

Mango Elementary has an in-house after-school program, but the possibility of other private entities or one of the designated regional parks accommodating some of the students will be challenging. It's 3 miles to the Brandon YMCA, 4-plus miles to the Brandon Boys & Girls Club and equally as far to the Brandon Recreation Center.

Yes, if parents can free themselves in the middle of the day to pick up their kids, that's not far. But if you're talking about elementary school students covering that distance by foot, it's out of the question.

You can find similar logistical challenges throughout the parks and rec plan. While the county wants to move out of the after-school-care business, this plan appears to be too much, too soon.

There will be a reduction in after-school services, but the size and scope need to be carefully examined. A smaller reduction might be wiser, and a needs-assessment quotient should be factored into the formula. Parks in some of the lower socioeconomic areas such as Bethune Park in Wimauma and Nuccio Park in east Tampa should earn a higher priority.

And the human element can't be overlooked. Gee said he has seen firsthand how the counselors impact lives.

"Maybe people think kids are just going there and playing games," Gee said, "but it's not just about playing games, it's about having a figure in your life that says, 'Sit yourself down today because you're not being a part of the team.'

"Those become the people that are influencers. You would be amazed how many kids don't have that person to give them a little tough love, and they respect it. It's not just about keeping them busy. It's about giving kids something they don't get at home."

Sustaining some type of after-school care is a lot to ask of a cash-strapped county government, but if the parks and recreation department doesn't take a judicious approach, the "latchkey" hours quickly could go from idyllic to expensive.

That's all I'm saying.

Even pinched, Hillsborough needs to provide enough child care during 'latchkey' hours 06/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:50pm]
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